Cancer can occur in many places in the body and can be either malignant or benign. It is something that is debilitating and can be associated with many other ailments. Bone cancer is just one of many types of cancer that can occur, and is usually present when the patient has cancer in another part of the body. The aggressive nature of some types of cancer means early diagnosis is essential, so in this article we will look closely at bone cancer symptoms, how it is diagnosed, and the various types of treatment for bone cancer.
In the first instance the main symptom of bone cancer will be increasing pain, particularly after exercise or at night, and notably within the bones. Some describe it as a dull ache to begin with, growing to a more acute pain with time. This is thanks to the tumour growing in size, and may also be characterised by the discovery of a lump on a bone somewhere in the body. If you do find suspect lumps you simply must get medical attention: too many cases of bone cancer are suspected early on yet not investigated until long after they should have been. If you find that your bones fracture very easily it could be because a tumour has weakened the bone. It is worth noting that this can happen even with benign tumours. Patients may also experience any of the following:
- Fever and chills
- Unusual weight loss
As the above can also be associated with other conditions it is essential that you seek medical help immediately if you experience any or all of them.
Here are some useful bone cancer facts to digest before we go into more detail about the different types of bone cancer:
- Primary bone cancer- that which begins in the bones – is very rare.
- Most bone cancer cases involve cancer elsewhere from which it has spread.
- Not all tumours are cancerous.
- Treatment can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.
- Bone cancer weakens the cells in the bones and makes them prone to fracture.
There are several bone cancer types, so let us explain the differences in more detail:
- Benign Versus Malignant – Bone cancer can be both malignant or benign; the difference is simple – malignant tumours are cancerous and can spread to other parts of the body destroying cells, while benign tumours are non-cancerous, and do not spread.
Malignant Bone Cancer Types
The most common forms of malignant bone cancer are the following:
- Ewing’s Sarcoma – a type of cancer common in younger people, generally between the ages of four to 15, this is very aggressive bone tumour usually found in the arms and legs, and with the likelihood of spreading to the lungs and elsewhere. It is very rare over the age of 30.
- Osteosarcoma – mostly seen in males between ten and 25, Osteosarcoma is the most common form of bone cancer. It is another very aggressive form usually found in the legs and arms, and can also spread to other areas and organs.
- Chondrosarcoma – seen mainly in those over 40, this common form of bone cancer begins life in the cartilage, and is found in areas where joints are used frequently such as the hip and pelvis. It can spread to the lungs.
These are the three main types of true bone cancer, and as you can see all are very aggressive and liable to spread.
Metastatic Bone Cancer
It is important to explain that the above, and other forms, can be described as metastatic bone cancer: this means that they can spread to other areas of the body, most notably the lungs and the lymphatic areas.
Secondary Bone Cancer Types
Secondary bone cancer is another term for metastatic bone cancer, and is best explained as follows: most bone cancers stem from cancer cells that have originated in another part of the body – known as the primary tumour; when they spread to the bones they become secondary. However, the term is sometimes wrongly used to describe associated cancers that attack not the bone itself but the soft tissue within, including the following:
- Malignant fibrous histiocytoma (MFH): a type of cancer that attacks the tendons, ligaments and muscles, and is found mainly in people over 50.
- Fibrosarcoma: a rare cancer that affects the knee area of people aged up to 55.
- Chordoma: a very rare cancer that is found at either end of the spinal column.
What Causes Bone Cancer?
Cancers are caused by mutations in our cells; the direct cause of this is unknown, hence the difficulty in treating many types of cancer. In terms of the causes of bone cancer it is the cells that make up the bones that have become mutated. Think of DNA – which is the makeup of our cells – as building blocks, and think of them becoming mis-shaped, or splitting into two. This is what is meant by mutation. There are increased risk factors for some types of bone cancer thanks to certain factors, including:
- Hereditary conditions – especially in children
- Recent radiotherapy or chemotherapy treatment
- Paget’s disease and other bone conditions
In some cases the mutation can lie dormant before making itself known, often for many years.
How Is Bone Cancer Diagnosed?
Diagnosis will begin with the doctor asking questions about the patient’s lifestyle, recent symptoms and general information. A physical examination will check for any abnormalities. The following steps may also be taken if one cancer is suspected:
- X-ray – this can reveal obvious tumours
- Blood tests – some bone cancers can lead to different chemicals in the blood
- CT or MRI scans – for more detailed analysis of tumours
- PET scan – usually combined with a CT scan
- Biopsy – the taking of a small piece of tissue for analysis in the laboratory
The above are essential steps to distinguish between bone cancer and possible alternative conditions.
The choice of treatment for bone cancer will depend entirely on the individual case; the type, location and state of the cancer will all influence the decision. There are different schools of thought about which treatment will benefit the patient, but the following are the main choices available:
- Surgery – removing the infected bone is the most popular method of treating bone cancer. Success depends on how advanced the cancer is, and whether it can be successfully removed. If it can, then the bone may be able to be replaced by way of bone grafts, leaving the patient to carry on as normal in successful cases.
- Chemotherapy – in cases where the cancer is restricted to a small area the surgeon may choose to use chemotherapy. It is also used as a pre-surgery method of shrinking tumours, and in post-operative cases where some cancer cells may have been left behind.
- Radiation therapy – this is used in a similar way to chemotherapy, to kill cells and shrink tumours.
Before a decision is made the doctor will discuss all the possible options with the patient in order that the procedure is fully understood.
Side Effects Of Treatment
The side effects of bone cancer treatment depend entirely upon the method chosen. If surgery is the chosen method then the patient may experience pain after the event as the bone graft takes place. This will be controlled by anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed by the doctor, and by other pain-relief methods while in hospital. Both chemotherapy and radiotherapy have associated side effects: nausea and vomiting, hair loss, weakness and fatigue and a general feeling of listlessness are among them, but these should be temporary and only for the duration of the treatment itself.
Future For Patients
Many patients undergo successful surgery and lead normal lives; others, who do not catch the disease in time, may find that treatment is not successful. The future prognosis for each individual case will generally differ, but there are guidelines that cancer experts will use to determine the likelihood of survival. This will also depend on the type of cancer, as follows:
- Osteosarcoma: a patient with this most common form of bone cancer has an estimated five year survival rate of 65%.
- Ewing’s Sarcoma: if this has not spread to the lungs there is a three year survival rate of 65%. If it has spread, the outlook is much bleaker.
- Chondrosarcoma: the second most common type of bone cancer, there is a low 30% survival rate if it takes an aggressive form, but 90% if it manifests as a slow growing tumour.
These are the three most commonly seen bone cancers, and with research into treatment ongoing it is important to discuss the current opinion on survival rates with your doctor or surgeon.
How To Deal With Bone Cancer Pain?
If you are suffering from pain and suspect it may be bone cancer you should contact a doctor straight away for a proper medical diagnosis. If it is pain management you are looking for you should also seek medical help. Pain killers can help stem the pain before, during and after treatment, and you may be prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs also. There are some such drugs that are not compatible with chemotherapy treatments, and this will be discussed with you at the time of diagnosis. Bone cancer is not something that should be treated at home: it needs professional, expert medical attention in all cases.
Where To Find Treatments?
As we have mentioned above, no case of bone cancer should be treated without medical help: you need a correct diagnosis immediately, and the right professional approach to treatment in order to make sure you get the right approach. There are no cures for bone cancer, so do not believe offers of alternative medicines and treatments – they will waste valuable time that should be used diagnosing the problem. Treatment of bone cancer is specific and requires expert knowledge.
We hope that this article has helped you to understand more about bone cancer, the symptoms associated with the condition, and how it can be treated, and if you do suspect you may be suffering please seek expert medical attention right away.